The Bear River Massacre: The West’s Forgotten Past

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On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, guest-blogger Dr Susannah Hopson draws attention to the complex memorial processes associated with the Bear River Massacre.

On a warm, bright October day in 2014, I visited the remote town of Franklin, Southeastern Idaho in the United States. An area not usually visited by tourists, this was home to small potato farming communities, the Jesus Christ Church of the Latter Day Saints and members of the Shoshoni Bannock tribe. I was there to visit the Bear River Massacre Site, the place of one of the most brutal and catastrophic Indian massacres in the history of the Euro-American formation of the American West.

On a bitterly cold morning on January the 29th 1863, between 250 and 300 Northwestern Shoshoni were slaughtered by the California Volunteers under the command of Colonel Patrick E. Connor. Bear River stands as an aberration in America’s past because this massacre has not been widely remembered in either national or scholarly memory despite its size and significance.

Bear River Massacre Sites
The Bear River Massacre Site. Copyright: Susannah Hopson.

However it is the site of a fascinating and complex memorialization process that has troubled the small town of Franklin and remained as a source of contention between local Euro-America and Northwestern Shoshoni memorials. The difficult public remembrance of Bear River is represented by a series of competing and, oftentimes, conflicting memorials that stand at the massacre site today. These memorials were constructed from 1932-1990, demonstrating shifts in local and national memory that were reflective of the ideologies of the eras in which they were constructed.

I drove past the site twice because there was only a small brown tourist sign locating the site of the massacre. When I got there the memorial site was empty of visitors and the first memorial I saw was a tall stone marker with a white tipi on top and red poppies emblazoned around the bottom. This memorial was erected in 1932 and attached to it are 3 different plaques commemorating the massacre from 1932 until 1990. The first plaque remembers the “Battle of Bear River” and the second is dedicated to the “Daughters of Utah,” pioneer women in 1953 who are remembered for helping wounded Volunteer soldiers in the massacre’s aftermath. Both these plaques imply that the Shoshoni were “hostile” and “combatant,” and that Connor and his men and the local community were protecting settlers from dangerous Shoshoni raids. This idea coincided with the national American consensus that the killing of Indians was necessary to uphold and expand the settlements of the American West, a view that persisted into the 1950s.

Bear River Memorial
The 1932 Memorial: This memorial contains plaques dedicated to the massacre from1932, 1953 and 1990.

Surprisingly, these representations stood unchallenged for almost 40 years and it was not until 1990, when the National Park Service renamed the site the “Bear River Massacre Site” that a plaque was added commemorating the event as a massacre and giving the site historical landmark status. This was reflected at a local level when the Idaho State Transportation department created a sign at the site stating: “Bear River Massacre.”

Placed below these Euro-American memorials were temporary markers left by the Northwestern Shoshone. Hanging in a nearby tree were other tribal dedications: small pieces of coloured string, beads and flowers. For me, these tributes stood out, demonstrating the interplay of tribal memory and Euro-American representations of the past. These conflicting memorials reveal the struggle for ideological control over the region’s complex past, as well as shifts in local and national memory.

Problematically, all the memorials listed above omit the Northwestern Shoshoni voice and it was not until 2003 when the tribe were deeded twenty-two acres of the massacre site. In 2006 the Shoshoni erected seven markers which currently stand overlooking the massacre site. The memorials tell a different story to the one’s written on the Euro-American plaques and I remember being struck by how contrarily these two communities remembered the massacre. One of the primary focuses of the Shoshoni memorials is the focus on the influence the massacre still has on their daily lives: “Most Shoshone people today do not want to dwell on the tragedy or inflame old animosities. They seek understanding and peace among all people. Nevertheless they also feel an obligation to tell the story of their ancestors, to learn from the mistakes of the past, and to honor the dead.” Remembering is crucial for the Shoshone, but so too is moving on and using the past to promote understanding between tribal members and the broader culture.

The Bear River Massacre Site is a fascinating case study of public memory. It portrays both cultural and historical shifts in society that are reflected in the language and content of the memorials. Importantly these memorials demonstrate how the Northwestern Shoshoni are now publicly reclaiming the memory of Bear River and challenging previously held perceptions of the day. The fact that these memorials remain, existing side by side, allows us to engage in the cultural and ideological tensions that inform memory and make it so malleable.

Dr Susannah Hopson was recently awarded a PhD in History at the University of Hull. Susannah is an historian of the Native American experience in the 19th century American West, including the history of violence and memory. Her doctoral research featured a comparative study of three Native American Massacre sites from 1863 till the present day, in order to test the limitations of collective memory within the American context. She is a research assistant on the research project Treatied Spaces.

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